The Year In Dining

The news in the New Orleans area restaurant business this year seemed to consistently be about successful restaurateurs opening new locations, or entirely new concepts.

A few of these involved large national or regional chains which–although they dominate the restaurant scene in most American cities, have made fewer inroads here. What was strange is that most of the new restaurants were opened by local guys who, although they have excellent credentials with the local dining public, seemed to try to beat the chains at their own game. And not always in a gratifying way.

The division game was played most notably in the two most popular restaurants among fine-dining Orleanians: Commander’s Palace and Galatoire’s. At both locations, shuffles in ownership and management among family members had everybody talking, although the net effect of the changes looks like zero to me.

Now that my opening conceit has played out, here’s a list of the top stories on the dining-out scene in 1997.

1. Emeril Lagasse. The city’s most famous chef (he’s become what Paul Prudhomme was in the Eighties) appears on televisions all over the country, and to great reviews. At home, he’s a rare sight in his restaurants, each of which has another (but very good) chef. Earlier this year, Emeril bought Delmonico, whose opening may have been delayed (I’m just guessing here) by the messy separation of the chef from his wife. And, to make sure you don’t forget him, Emeril brought out two new cookbooks this year, both of which are big hits. Best of all, he remains a nice guy.

2. The Brennan Empire. It’s still in one piece as Dick, Ella, John and Dottie Brennan retire almost completely from the operation. The next generation has decided to be more individually autonomous than their parents were, and each has his or her own operation, more or less. The biggest change of all was a swap of positions by Ti Martin (Ella’s daughter, now at Commander’s) with Dick Brennan Jr. (who moved to the Palace Cafe). Most independent of all: Ralph Brennan, who opened the Red Fish Grill entirely on his own, and also bought his sister’s share of Bacco.

3. Special-Event Marketing. If you want to go to a wine dinner, cigar dinner, beer dinner, or some other specially themed culinary event, chances are there will be one tonight somewhere around town. Just about every restaurant this side of Mandina’s is creating razzmatazz meals. (Heck, I’m doing them myself.) The typical prices hover around $60, although more than a few this year went over the $100 mark. The expensive ones are the hardest to penetrate. Best special event dinner of the year: the Last Dinner on the Titanic, a series presented by the new Chef’s Table.

4. The Al Copeland Thing. The creator of Popeyes reaped a bonanza of publicity from his feud with novelist Ann Rice over the gaudy new Straya on St. Charles Avenue. That cooled down to background radiation, helped along by the promise of a slew of other flashy new restaurants in that formerly forlorn stretch of the Avenue. Within a couple of years, it will be a major restaurant row, dominated by chain them-restaurant locations. Meanwhile. . .

5. The Wrap Sandwich Thing. Al Copeland opened two locations of Wrap ‘n’ Roll, a drive-through chain offering the wrap sandwiches he pioneered at Straya. These are not limited to Wrap ‘n’ Roll. The first place to do them, a funky little operation called Kokopelli’s, is about to open it second location. And wrap sandwiches are appearing in restaurants of all kinds all over town. I’d say that it only has about a year to go, but I think I’d be wrong as I was about the staying power of the equally-inexplicable cigar phenomenon.

6. The Appeal of the Chef as Host. Many, many people complain to me that Emeril is never at Emeril’s, Paul is never at K-Paul’s, and that Daniel sold Chez Daniel to go to his other place. What’s more, they want the chef to come out into the dining room, preferably as clean as if he were not cooking at all, and schmooze at the table. So we see Chef Jamie Shannon at Commander’s spending a lot of time at the table, and Chef Robert Bruce at the Palace Cafe actually serving people. And Chef Andrea giving long dissertations on the beautiful-wonderfulness of his food. And, at the Chef’s Domain in Mandeville, we have waiters and waitresses dressed up as chefs, to give you the impression that the chef is always with you.

7. Steak. Even in the face of all we hear about the advisability of cutting down on red meat consumption, the steakhouse–especially at its upper levels–is busier than ever. Ruth’s Chris chalked up another record year, there are lines at both the Outback and its new next-door neighbor Doug’s Place, and you still can’t get a table right away at Young’s in Slidell unless you go at five in the afternoon. And it’s not over: Smith and Wollensky, the great New York steakhouse, bought the old Maylie’s on Poydras Street and is well along in constructing a major, expensive new restaurant there. And Dickie Brennan is bringing a long-held idea of his dad to fruition with a first-class steakhouse on Iberville Street. Medium-rare, please.

8. The Near and Not-So-Near East. The Turkish-inspired cuisines have caught on in a big way, as restaurants old and new practicing the style find themselves suddenly popular. Mona’s, an unlikely, minimal cafe in Mid-City, has even become a mini-phenomenon. At the same time, dishes like hummus and sauces like tzatziki and sides like couscous have become commonplace in mainstream restaurants. Also hot now are all the national cooking styles that involve curry: Indian, Vietnamese, and Thai in particular. Five years ago, you couldn’t have got the average Orleanian to try these savories at the point of a gun.

9. The Disappearing Louisiana Pizza Kitchen. Could it be the terrible murders at the French Quarter location that’s responsible for the closings of three of the five local branches? If so, why is the French Quarter location one of the ones still around? The chain was the hottest thing going a couple of years ago, and its food is still good. What gives?

10. Begats. Charley G’s begat Metro Bistro. Lucky Chang’s begat Criollo (sort of). G&E Courtyard Grill begat Chef’s Table. Semolina begat Zea Grill. The Steak Knife killed the Windjammer and begat Breakwater Bistro. Dakota begat CreOla. Bistro at the Maison de Ville begat Dominique’s. Louisiana Pizza Kitchen and Alberto’s together begat St. John’s Cucina Italiana. The Versailles begat Le Parvenu. And Mr. B’s begat the Red Fish Grill, which is where we came in.

Happy eating in 1998!

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